Public Property, a seven-piece reggae band from Iowa, has opened for bands like The Roots and will stop in Ithaca on Tuesday as part of a national tour. Staff Writer Mike Spreter spoke with frontman Dave Bess about reggae in the Midwest and how the band fits the genre’s rich past.
Mike Spreter: Your name, “Public Property,” kind of infers that you owe something to the public or that you have a public mission. Where did that come from?
Dave Bess: It’s just sort of a way for us to reject corporate domination. You could say that art should be the public’s property.
MS: Going along with that, what do you think about file-sharing and those things?
DB: I think that’s great. You know, we’re an independent band, we’re unsigned and we’ve been doing it solo for four years now. It’s only helping the independent musician. I think it’s only making it harder for the music industry to promote pop stars when people have more of a choice of what they want to hear.
MS: On a musical level, what attracted you to reggae? What do you think is unique or most interesting about it?
DB: Reggae music’s got a hell of a groove to it, I don’t know … it’s drum and bass and a lot of rhythm. Rhythm guitar, rhythm on the keyboard … it makes it a very danceable and soulful music. I grew up listening to reggae music my whole life; I grew up in Hawaii. It’s a huge part of the scene there, so that influenced me. I’ve been listening to it for a long time and had always wanted to start a reggae band.
MS: Reggae was ostensibly born out of social criticism. How do you see yourself in that context; is there some social problem you’re most adamant about?
DB: Traditionally reggae music has been very religious music, Rastafarian music that deals with a lot of humanistic ideal: going back to the earth, rejecting a lot of the developments of the new world, championing human rights for third-world countries, etc. It’s just an alternate viewpoint on the modern world. Our music is not religious at all, so there’s that big difference, but in a lot of ways the music deals with the same concerns — the major global conflicts and political corruption that is happening pretty much everywhere. That’s one of the things I love about reggae music … it seems to be very honest music, and it’s righteous music.
MS: The fact that you’re a reggae band with all white members, particularly with female members, does that ever make people uncomfortable or make them criticize you for not coming from a traditional reggae background?
DB: I think they probably do, but I don’t have to deal with it that much to be honest. I think when people come to our shows and hear us, then all of that is really irrelevant. After listening to a couple of songs, people realize it doesn’t matter. I’ve seen a lot of reggae bands I didn’t like … some were white, some were black, it doesn’t really matter. To me it just matters how you’re arranging your songs, how you’re attacking your music. Are you trying to mimic something or are you creating it out of love for music? I think that’s what’s made this band succeed, because we take our influences and try to create something fresh while still maintaining solid gospel and roots reggae backing in our music.
MS: You seem like you walk the line between confrontational/political and fun. Are those things separate to you?
DB: I think that’s what reggae embodies. It’s not meant to be downer music; it’s a very fun and active music. You go to a reggae party and everyone’s dancing, you know … it’s kind of hard to deny. That’s what I always loved about reggae, is that it’s so much fun to go see reggae shows and be an audience member … but at the same time, you’re hearing a confrontational or positive message about something you care about. Even if you don’t, maybe if you disagree, at least it’s music everyone can get down to. It should be a positive experience while still being a conscious experience.
MS: Being from the “King Corn” state … I was wondering how you feel about the theory that corn is what’s fueling the obese American diet. There’s even a whole documentary coming out about it. What is your personal opinion of corn?
DB: Corn can be used for good and bad things. Corn syrup, bad! Biofuels, good! But that’s more to do with soybeans. … They’re making ethanol of corn now, that’s helping us wean off the oil addiction. Iowa’s actually becoming a leader in the nation for alternative fuels, biofuels are abundant here. There’s a biodiesel co-op not too far from [Iowa City]. The farming industry’s changing pretty dramatically every month, every year. People are changing from just selling corn for corn syrup to biofuels and stuff. Yeah, corn syrup sucks … but that’s your choice as a consumer. I think we’re sometimes ignorant as a nation as to what we’re consuming.
Public Property is performing at 9 p.m. Tuesday at Castaways, 413–415 Taughannock Blvd. Admission is $5.